Sunday 7 May 2006 17:17

Driving late at night between Limerick and Cork, I see four powerful lights coming towards me. Above them, at an elevation of perhaps six feet, I see – also in lights – the word MAN. The lights draw close and I see that they represent an articulated truck.

MAN is in the cab.

It takes me some time to work out that the driver is a follower of Manchester United football club, but in the meantime I worry about the message. The hurtling juggernaut bears a standard and that standard makes claims on behalf of mankind. Or the lights represent the first verifiable observation of an extra-terrestrial kidnap attempt, the lights advertising the predatory intent. Or perhaps: the hurtling juggernaut is a metaphor for man, hurtling through darkness by his own brutal lights, destroying the habitat, a menace on wheels, a dupe of rampant capitalism, a careless idiot.

But, of course, Man United is man anyway, essential man. The cosy abbreviation says so. A stricter abbreviation (Man U) is the conjunction in one locus of everyman and you, the Ego belonging to/with the Other.

If everyone followed the club the world would be a better, less divided place. Certainly there would be factions, divisions on matters of science or art, but ultimately everyone would act together for the betterment of all. Everyman would unite around the game, a kind of ballet of skill and grace, reserve and élan.  The game itself is a trope for human life in which you win some and you lose some, where much alteration occurs during half-time: where encounters can be bruising, goals can be overshot, where opponents can be worthy, where the going can be hard and conditions poor, where teamwork and self-belief pay dividends. Where the ordinary man can commune with the hero.

Or at least a version of human life as lived in an unredeemed Foucauldian universe.

And Manu has its heroes like any other mythology – Roy Keane is the classic Greek combination of hubris and furor, proud and rash, but also capable of kindness, hospitality and generosity.

Wherever in the world they go, supporters of Manu recognise each other by their colours. They share the same communion, the same rituals, the same sacramental vocabulary. They pity their separated brethren who also speak the language, but in a reduced form, a dialect or even an argot, who practise at a debased shrine, whose rituals and sacraments are at one or more remove from the godhead.

True followers of Manu are decent people with masculine values like fair play; competition; respect for the rules; moderate consumption of beer, ale or stout combined with a suspicion of spirits; heterosexuality; unquestioning patriotism; they reject emotion except in relation to football (the only acceptable use of the word ‘passion’ occurs in the context of sport); philosophy, except in relation to football (the only acceptable use of the word ‘play’, etc); foreigners, except, etc.; designer clothes; abstract or conceptual art; salads except in sandwiches known as BLT; and yoghurt except in curries. As always the exceptions themselves point to rituals of exceptional importance, much as Catholics – who reject cannibalism – make one important exception for the Mass which is, they say a central and defining concept in their system.

Thus, the curry is a moment of intense meaning. It is foreign, but not foreign. It contains yoghurt, but the yoghurt is transformed in the curry process. It is communal, a kind of communion. It is hot, a kind of test of fortitude and toughness. It may be taken away, carrying the sacrament into the public sphere. And so on.

But Manu is also the One Musketeer crying ‘All for one’ without the qualifier. At its heart is an injunction: All art, all skill, all beauty, all comradeship, the union, all humanity, all ethics and morality belong to the market. He who pays most signs the best. To the richest belong the spoils. And, Manu says, this is MAN. This is not a football team but a definition of what it is to be human. Its precepts stand in place of ethics, serve as the foundation of criticism of public action on radio complaint-shows; it acts as a model against which to assess the actions of others, and as a metaphoric playing out of all human actions and positions.

And it is a lorry travelling too fast between Cork and Limerick on a dark night, on a narrow road, with too many lights.